Food Luddites of the world, unite!

 

Democrats and Republicans in this country can’t agree on anything. Except one thing: GMO labeling.

On July 14, just before going on their summer recess, the US House of Representatives passed a controversial bill on biotech labeling. The bill requires that most foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be identified as such.

The really funny thing about this bill is that it shows how representative democracy in America is not representative at all. You would think that public perceptions over an issue are generally homogenous when both Democrat and Republican views are aligned. Well, not in the case of genetic engineering.

GE is such a powerful technology that it should be of no surprise to find it is a polemical topic. Results from a recent poll indicate that around 37 percent of the public thinks GMOs are generally safe. People are clearly uneasy about genetically modified foods and are therefore demanding access to more and more transparent information about composition of their food choices.

“With great power comes great responsibility”

Critics of biotechnology argue it can spawn new classes of accidents and abuses. Some protesters oppose biotechnology thinking they are attacking Monsanto and other large corporations with morally questionable marketing practices. Others oppose GE on the grounds of uncertainty regarding the long-term risks and threats that GMOs pose on human health and the environment. They argue that the general consensus among the scientific community that GMOs are safe to eat doesn’t mean that it is impossible to engineer a plant that would be bad for human heath — and this plant could be the result of an accident but also from a deliberate terrorist act.

Precautionary positions are sometimes efficient economic guidelines — think about environmental policy on nuclear waste disposal, for example. But even if the fears of food Luddites are justified, can the global society afford to take their position?

Swelling populations and income growth around the world are fueling unprecedented increases in the global demand for food. To meet the world’s appetites, food production will have to increase drastically over the next four decades, and as pressures from climate change make food production progressively more challenging, biotechnology will become a key factor in helping meet these needs.

GE promises to revolutionize agriculture, and it is already offering many economic, health and even environmental benefits to both consumers and producers of agricultural commodities around the world. Some of the successes of crop biotechnology include increased yields, reduced reliance on pesticides, improved nutritional value of crops, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Clearly, it is a complicated issue and that’s why it deserves careful and intelligent discussion. The passing of this bipartisan bill makes it look as if Democrats and Republicans can be quick to agree on something complicated and extremely important. However, for those of you interested in evaluating the wisdom of American political leaders based on the potential impacts that the recent GMO-labeling bill can have on local and global food supply, think of the following: although the bill mandates disclosure, it also allows companies to avoid the on-package labeling that consumers typically support. Instead, companies can label their products through scannable smartphone codes.[1] In addition, the bill does not mandate that companies explain what type of GE technology was used, on what traits, or why. In other words, there won’t be an easily recognizable symbol stigmatizing a particular food product for containing GE ingredients. There also won’t be a whole lot of information for concerned consumers to attain.

It seems to me that the practical consequences of this bill are minimal at best. Meaning that Democrats and Republicans agree on something, something that doesn’t matter.

References:

Historic GMO labeling compromise clears Congress: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Historic-GMO-labeling-compromise-clears-Congress-07142016.asp

How Square Watermelons Get Their Shape, and Other G.M.O. Misconceptions: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/12/science/gmo-misconceptions.html

 

[1] Ironically for the food Luddites who support the passing of this bill, to keep technology at bay, you will need… well, technology — anybody betting against the Unabomber’s predictions?

 

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